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Cardinal Martini repeats call for decentralized Church government April 07, 2004

Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the retired Archbishop of Milan who for years was Europe's most prominent liberal prelate, has broken a long silence with a new call for greater collegiality in the governance of the Catholic Church.

Cardinal Martini, who now lives primarily in Jerusalem, offered his thoughts in a long interview published by the Italian daily Il Tempo . He said that there is "still a long road" to the implementation of the vision proclaimed by Vatican II for a collegial government.

The Jesuit cardinal mentioned the Synod of Bishops as an important element in a less centralized form of Church governance. The Synod, he said, should be "a sort of permanent council of regents for the Church, beside the Pope." But he said with regret that the Synod has not yet become a permanent institution. He suggested that modern means of communication should make it feasible to assemble up to 4,500 bishops.

Cardinal Martini called for occasional meetings of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the central problems facing the Catholic Church. Although he said that the synod should discuss major policy issues as well as pastoral concerns, and argued that "synods and councils are the same thing," he cautioned Il Tempo that he was not proposing a "Vatican III" council. That would be a mistake, he said, because "it would mean calling into question all that was done by Vatican II."

The cardinal also called for a stronger role for national bishops' conferences in the administration of the Church. He suggested that the episcopal conferences might even be given a voice in papal elections, so that the conclave would be more representative of the world's Catholic population. On another controversial issue, Cardinal Martini said that the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate "deserves greater recognition than is currently possible under canonical legislation." Cardinal Martini was regard for some years as the leading "progressive" candidate to succeed Pope John Paul II. During a meeting of the Synod of Bishops for Europe in 1999, he caused a stir by suggesting that the Church should reconsider the understanding of papal primacy, and suggesting the development of new forms for exercising collegial leadership. It was that address which led some reporters to suggest that the Italian prelate was calling for "Vatican III," although Cardinal Martini had immediately sought to clarify that he had no such intention.

Although he is no longer considered a likely successor to the current Pope, Cardinal Martini remains a highly influential prelate, whose opinions are closely watched by other Church leaders, and he could be an important figure in the next papal conclave. He obliquely acknowledged that influence in his interview with Il Tempo , saying, "there are, in the Church, some wise people who have ways of making their voices heard other than a simple vote."